December 18, 2012 by Daniel
WARNING: Spoiler-y stuff for Mark of the Ninja abounds, if you care about that sort of thing.
For all the counts, Mark of the Ninja is a great game. It represents the first time that Klei’s unique animation style is actually paired up with awesome gameplay, in this case reinventing the entire stealth genre in the process. It’s just great level design, a fair difficulty curve, a ton of replay value, and genius stealth systems throughout, and it’s easily one of the best games of the year. In a pure gameplay sense Mark of the Ninja is the most straight-up fun I’ve had with a game in a long time.
The one thing I wasn’t such a huge fan of was its writing. It’s certainly not bad; for all intents and purposes, it’s some perfectly acceptable mystic ninja-sounding stuff. But that’s kind of all it is – the characters are flat and the plot, which deals with some classic ninja deception and trickery, is mostly boring. The most criminal aspect of this simplicity is how little they explore what is actually a pretty interesting setting – a modern world where at least one ninja clan still exists. The problem is one of context – they never explore the world around the game’s own events, so the importance of those events end up being a too vague to really mean anything. It seems like the entire world of the game is just the ninjas’ home base, the evil businessman’s home base, and the space in between. Shank had a similar problem, but it’s at least clearly meant to be occurring in the seedy underbelly of a city – the places between the cracks of society, so to speak. The villain of Mark of the Ninja, by contrast, is some swanky, high-class businessman who also appears to be a maker of high-tech weapons – I feel like I should have a clearer idea of what his role is in the greater world of game. And the same thing goes for the ninja clan – because the game’s plot focuses on the personal agency of the clan’s master Azai and the consequences surrounding his choices, we don’t understand the “rules” of ninjas in this world. What do the ninjas do? Do people hire them to be assassins? Is society aware that they exist? What is their purpose for existing in this world? Because of the vagueness with which the game treats its world, we don’t even get a really good reason for the game to be happening – since we don’t know why a ninja clan even exists at all, we also don’t really get a good reason for why Azai would feel the need to modernize them, setting off the events of the game’s plot.
The other thing I took umbrage with was the inclusion of two game endings. I don’t really like the idea of branching endings in games when the concept of story-based player choice is not central to the game itself. It just feels like a cheap ploy to force the player to play through the game again – and in this world of streaming video, that tactic doesn’t even work anymore. And it’s not necessary in Mark of the Ninja at all! The game has so much replay value as it is – there’s the possibilities that come from replaying levels with different loadouts, there’s that burning desire to 100 % every stage by finding all of its secrets and fulfilling its optional challenges, and there’s even that super-hard New Game Plus mode, which drastically changes the way you have to play the game. It doesn’t need the inclusion of a ham-handed final choice that doesn’t work thematically with the rest of the game.
The reason why it doesn’t work is that the only choice that the main character gets at all throughout the events of the story is within gameplay sections – it’s the same level of situational choice that the player gets. The protagonist is never able to change how the story itself plays out and, being a silent character, is in fact only able to follow the motivations of other characters within the game. So when they actually hand you, the player, the choice to shape the game’s narrative, right at the end – kill Azai or kill yourself – it just doesn’t jive with the rest of the game. It’s like when a game introduces you to a new gameplay concept right before the final boss – it cheapens both the application of that new concept within gameplay, AND that final boss encounter.
Here, the ability to choose from two endings both feels really out of place with the rest of the game and weakens all of the story preceding it. The only reason I really mention this stuff is that the rest of the game is so damn good that these few weaker elements stick out like a katana in an unknowing guard’s back. For someone who’s becoming more and more interested in games as a storytelling medium, it’s a bit of a bummer that the best-playing game of this year couldn’t match that sophistication in its plot, setting, and characters. With Mark of the Ninja as well as the currently-in-playable-beta Don’t Starve, Klei have become one of the small game studios to watch, and I just hope that in the future they’re able to pair up their ingenious gameplay systems and fantastic art style with a more sophisticated level of thematic resonance.